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Bugs and plants – a 480m-year partnership

Big data has solved an evolutionary mystery about insects, the largest and most diverse group of living things on the planet.

深圳桑拿网

Insects are tough survivors, quickly adapting as biodiversity crises led to mass extinctions in other groups.

Now a genetic analysis shows they’ve been doing that since they emerged 480 million years ago, looking like silverfish, about the same time as the first land-based plants.

Insects grew wings 80 million years later, well before any other animal, a paper in the journal Science says.

One co-author is Director of CSIRO’s Australian National Insect Collection, David Yeates, who says the ancient ancestors of today’s dragonflies and mayflies were the first to develop wings.

“This was at about the same time that land-based plants developed height, showing they were able to rapidly adapt to their changing environment,” Dr Yeates says in a statement.

“Some of these dragonflies quickly developed wings spanning up to 70cm, and with slashing mandibles, these swift general predators weren’t to be messed with.”

The reconstruction of the insect tree of life was made possible by creating and analysing a DNA sequence dataset of unprecedented scale.

It involved more than 100 experts in molecular biology, insect morphology, paleontology, insect taxonomy, evolution, embryology bioinformatics and scientific computing.

Macquarie University’s Robert Lanfear says the project produced such enormous datasets they often exceeded the limits of available software, forcing them to rewrite.

“This should have knock-on benefits for the field, as huge datasets are increasingly the norm rather than the exception,” Dr Lanfear said.

They say the research is essential to understanding the millions of insect species that shape our environment, and both support and threaten our natural resources.

FACTBOX

* Insects first originated about 479 million years ago, probably looking like silverfish.

* Most insect species today originated about 345 million years ago.

* Flight did not emerge until complex terrestrial ecosystems were established – and plants grew taller.

* The spread of flowering plants was accompanied by an explosion of diversity among flying insects, such as bees, wasps and butterflies.

* The study suggests cockroaches and termites probably evolved after the Permian mass extinction some 252 million years ago.

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